Forty-five years after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established to protect Western Europe from the danger of Soviet aggression, Russia has signed up as a partner of the alliance. That is as close to declaring victory as NATO can get. Deterrence, one can say in hindsight, worked.
The partnership will involve joint exercises and peace-keeping, and a Russian delegation at NATO headquarters in Brussels. There is some sleight of hand here. This 21st partnership signed by the 16-member NATO -- the others being former neutral, satellite and Soviet republics -- is different. Russia and NATO recognize that they both "have important contributions to make to European stability and security."
This relationship blurs some contradictions. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic want to join NATO to guarantee their safety from Russia. Russia fears NATO expansion to the east at its own expense. In these Partnerships for Peace, which the Clinton administration largely formulated, Russia recognizes that some countries may join NATO while Western countries acknowledge Russian superpowerdom in Europe.
In forging this relationship, President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev (the latter signed the agreement in Brussels) have prevailed over the Communist and nationalist opposition. They are knitting Russia more firmly to the West. Tomorrow, in Greece, Mr. Yeltsin will sign a trade accord with the 12-member European Union. In July he will attend a summit of industrial powers and in September he will visit the United States.
If this relationship is important for Russia, it is no less so for the West, or what may soon have to be called, "the former West." Russia, if it does not disintegrate, remains a superpower, based on nuclear armament, geography and population. Achieving the right relationship with it is still Western Europe's principal security preoccupation. Mighty Russia will always be a force for good or ill.
The Partnership for Peace formula is meant to harness Russia to the West with bonds of friendship. The idea is to deny the option of military confrontation even to Mr. Yeltsin's domestic enemies should they come to power. The partnerships slough over the reality that former satellites still fear Russia, and that Russia fears their joining an alliance against it.
The agreement was held up for two months by the contradiction between what Russia and the former satellites want. The solution was for Russia to accept that NATO accommodates them both.
By playing a role in institutionalizing friendship with Russia, the alliance is making itself indispensable to post-Cold War Europe. One would almost think that if NATO did not exist, Russia would have to invent it in order to have made peace and partnership with the West, which it must do for its own sake.